Lois & Clark & Chris & Ronnie: “I’m Looking Through You”/”Requiem for a Superhero”
Chris: Hey hi, and welcome back to Lois and Clark and Chris and Ronnie, a weeklyish column dedicated to evaluating mid 90’s superhero dramedy Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman through the prism of our superhero-soaked present. I’m Chris Ludovici, bitter late-stage Gen Xer and OG L&C fan revisiting the show for the first time in years. Joining me is Ronnie Gardocki, a plucky, bright-eyed millennial who can rap with the young people. He grew up shipping Smallville’s Clark and Lana and is watching L&C with fresh eyes. This week we’ll be looking at episodes four and five of the first season, “I’m Looking Through You” and “Requiem For A Superhero”. Strap in friends, things are about to get real fucking silly.
Would you just get a load of those…breasts.
I’d say that “I’m Looking Through You” was L&C doing a lighthearted X-Files homage, except both shows debuted in 1993 and The X-Files had only aired five episodes by the time “ILTY” was broadcast. As it is, we just have to chalk the similarities up to eerie coincidence and/or massive inter-network conspiracy. As the episode opens, a string of Robin Hood style robberies where the loot is redistributed to the city’s less fortunate have occurred across Metropolis by a supposedly invisible man and Lois and Clark are tasked with getting to the bottom of things. This is where the X-Files comparisons kick in. Lois is the skeptic Scully, staunchly refusing to believe that a person can turn themselves invisible to the more credulous Mulderish Clark, who is willing to believe anything’s possible in a world where there’s a Superman. It’s a mostly lighthearted affair. There’s no nefarious government assassins or ruthless corporate killers (Lex jets off to hunt alligators so he can have new shoes made after two quick scenes in the first act; yes, really). Things never get more dangerous than a good old fashioned bank robbery where the crook does the thing where he shoots at Superman, who stands there smirking like an asshole with his hands on his hips and lets the bullets bounce harmlessly off his chest and into the watching crowd.
This is the speed that Lois & Clark works best so far. Its central drama mostly exists for Lois and Clark to hang out and work out their issues with each other and the world at large. This brings us to the B plot of this week’s episode, Clark’s profound ambivalence about Superman’s exploding popularity and Lois’s fear that that same fame has caused her to fall by the wayside in the Man of Steel’s life. It’s all about visibility, you see. Lois worries that she’s become invisible to the in-demand Superman, and Superman is freaked out that everywhere he goes all he sees is himself, in pictures and on t-shirts and as toys that kids play with. Meanwhile, a woman has come forward claiming to be the Invisible Man’s wife, and that her meek and loving husband created the technology in the mad-scientist style laboratory in the basement of their house. But before her claims can be too carefully investigated the lab is destroyed and the Invisible Man crimes turn violent, leading Lois and Clark to conclude that there are now two invisible men: the original altruistic one, and a new, criminal one who obtained the technology for himself after ransaking the basement laboratory.
Do you get it?
Ronnie: Let it not go unstated that said criminal is none other character actor superstar Jim Beaver, here Henry “Golden Boy” Barnes. He’s so nicknamed because he seemingly only steals gold. I mean, the alternative is he’s into golden showers and I don’t think 1993 ABC was ready for that kind of adult reference. Like every episode so far, I find this to be a land of contrasts. On the one hand, I’m glad Superman has to face a foe whose powers are a little more involved than “has a gun” (though Jim Beaver’s gang does have guns). On the other, the plotting for this is pretty ropey and sometimes downright insulting. Like when the original Invisible Man (Leslie Jordan) comes to Lois and Clark, he ends up sleeping over in Clark’s apartment. What the hell? This is not common in any path of journalism of which I’m familiar. Then we get to Leslie Jordan’s motivation. “I became so invisible in my own life I decided to do it for real” he says, so apparently his marriage was so shitty that he decided to spend 15 years perfecting invisibility technology.
I’m also of mixed opinion as to the subplots at play. Superman freaking out at the crowd gathered for him receiving the key to the city (which is a yearly distinction, as last year’s recipient–Lex Luthor–has to hand it over to him) like he’s King Kong reacting to the flash bulbs is a humanizing take on the character that I’m not sure works. Okay, so the common criticism of Superman is he’s too perfect, and he sucks all the drama out of situations by virtue of being so powerful, so innately good, etc. I think I agree with that to an extent; if he can move planets around then Toyman isn’t exactly a credible threat. However, there is folly in going too far in the other direction, and giving Superman social anxiety makes me wonder. Shit, I have social anxiety, and I don’t want to see my fucking hang ups and issues reflected in the big blue boy scout. By making Superman too human it both establishes that it’s a costume Clark puts on and vice versa and diminishes the character to a degree. Superman should have a touch of otherworldiness to him and so far Lois & Clark is still in the growing pains of that.
Chris:I dunno, I don’t think Superman has social anxiety disorder in particular. I think he just needed an antagonist that he could overcome and that was the one for this week because he can’t actually fight a flesh and blood villain in any kind of interesting way. Here’s the thing: Superman is essentially an epic character, and there was simply no way to do his epicness justice in 1993 on a television screen. Hell, the CW isn’t doing a good job of it in 2021. This is where I also say that I think the show was even kind of low budget by network TV standards at the time. I did the bare minimum of research on this (skimming one Wikipedia article) and couldn’t find any information either way, so let’s assume it’s true because that bolsters my argument. Absent that scope, the writers have to focus on the characters and how they’re feeling, but they have to be careful not to lose track of the bright tone of the whole thing. If they tried to be grim and grounded they’d end up looking unintentionally ridiculous because there’s a guy with a cape and bright red booties that has to show up at least once a week (see above re: the CW show). So may as well lean into the silliness and do scenes centered around getting keys to the city and wacky nightmares.
Honestly, not the crappiest Superman merch I’ve seen.
I think it’s pretty analogous to the situation DC found themselves in the 50s with Wertham’s book and the comics code straitjacketing the creators imaginations with inane restrictions. There’s a large element of Working With What They Give You in corporate mediums like comics and television (especially back then when deadlines were a thing). You’re churning out product and constantly adjusting and compromising so the best bet is often to take what you’re given and do the best job you can with it. In the comics of the 50s that meant saying fuck it and inventing a thousand new kryptonites every week or introducing Beppo the Super Monkey. In 1993 on TV it meant having Clark fighting anxiety instead of Brainiac or him seeing an airplane in trouble while at a staff meeting at The Planet and dropping his pen so he can duck down, supercrawl away, fly off to save the plane (offscreen) and return with a new pen before anyone notices he’s gone. The emotional stakes take center stage because they’re cheaper and easier to film and the action is suggested in a cute, economical way. I’m not saying it’s great, just that I think it’s probably the best way to do it, and it’s working more than it’s not. So far.
Ronnie: Makes sense, but there’s going to be some tension in the subject matter–which suggests amazing adventures and special effects that are limited only by an artist’s imagination–and the boundaries of early 1990s network television. Superman comes with a set of expectations, right? This show consists of squeezing Superman’s mythos into a will they won’t they romance, which the comics had elements of but did not place at the forefront. Maybe it’s more a matter of me getting over the dissonance. Maybe not! That’s the beauty of this series: we get to learn along the way.
Odds & Ends
-Seinfeld alum tracker: 2 (Marcelino the bodega owner as a Daily Planet employee; Woman Who Newman Paws At The Mailbox as the Invisible Man’s wife)
-Cat Grant enters the Daily Planet meeting and plants one right on Clark’s lips. Her over the top flirting has advanced to outright sexual harassment. This is a bit much even in a pre-Ally McBeal landscape.
-Lois apparently once hosted a talk/seminar called “The Weaker Sex: Fact or Fiction?”, which is indisputably hilarious.
-Lex’s turban lackey no longer wears a turban. It raises questions: is it an affectation? Does he wear it for the high holidays only? “Lex’s Turban Guy” requires a more in-depth examination.
-Do people actually bid on bachelors for charity or is that just a thing invented for movies and TV? I’ve seen it a lot, but never outside that context. Incidentally, Lex sells for $10,000 whereas Superman goes for $50,000. I don’t care if fucker can fly, Dean Cain is not worth 5 times John Shea.
Slow down, Supes! You can’t consummate until at least sweeps!
Ronnie: In “Requiem for a Superhero”, things start off well with a cute opening sequence of Clark playing baseball by himself, using his super speed to play every position. This seems like a throwaway at first but sports actually plays an important part of the episode. See, in addition to being about boxers augmented with cybernetics, it also introduces Lois’ father. Sam Lane in the comics and pretty much every adaptation I can think of, including Superman & Lois, is an army general. His authoritarian mindset and innate distrust of Superman creates conflict with his daughter. Here he is reinterpreted as…a sports medicine doctor (he “practically invented reconstructive surgery for athletes”), and his workaholism distances him from Lois. (No mention of Lucy. Out of sight, out of mind. She’s like Jerry Seinfeld’s sister or George Costanza’s brother now.) Now, this might just be me, but “I’m busy reconstructing Kerry Wood’s arm so I can’t see your recital” isn’t as compelling as “I have to plan the invasion of Grenada, sorry about missing your birthday”.
Lex Luthor has his fingers in many pies, and inevitably one of those pies is the lucrative cyborg boxing scene. John Shea continues to be a highlight, and a boon to the series; there are multiple scenes of him monologuing to either a mirror or a dog that are wonderful. I like what they’re doing with the character in that we know he’s pure evil but the characters don’t, except Superman of course. Obviously Lex will fall from grace at some point, but I hope they stretch out his philanthropic image out for as long as is realistic. Shea’s magnificent acting papers over some of the weaknesses in the script, like “why would Lex be involved in this” and “what’s the end game for this exactly”.
I just found the size of his cordless telephone comical. The 90s were a different time.
The crux of “Requiem for a Superhero” is, obviously, the Lois/Dr. Lane relationship. Dr. Lane does reappear multiple times in the series, albeit not with this actor, so there’s value in exploring the relationship. It’s your pretty standard exploration–they’re estranged because he was a workaholic, she resents him for it, they come closer together over a cyborg boxing scandal–but it works, to the extent that anything in Lois & Clark “works”. Less so is the final confrontation between the big mouth boxer full of gears and Superman. There’s no suspense in who will win, so Superman comes off as an overly confident jackass who gives the guy an element of false hope as the match begins. Then there’s a sequence to cap off everything where Clark trains at the gym that time forgot? We know this show doesn’t have the budget for “fight choreography”, stop teasing us.
Chris: I had mixed feelings about that ending because on the one hand he’s absolutely a dickhead to that evil boxer (who, it should be pointed out, does have something of an irrational fixation on Superman. At one point earlier in the episode he punches a hole in the wall of a building while bellowing for the Man of Steel to face him; that’s not your wall dude, come on.). On the other, isn’t early Superman famous for being kind of a dickhead? I confess that Golden Age Superman is not an era that I’m intimately familiar with, but the whole “crooked boxers” angle felt very 40s to me in a way that made it easier for me to excuse his moral lapse. I also liked the little old lady giving Superman advice after the boxer gets in the early sucker punch and knocks him to the mat. I dunno, maybe I’m still salty about that wall, but I felt like he had it coming.
Some fine “about to get hit by a truck” acting right there.
Speaking of fidelity of the source material, I join you in being confused about the switch in profession for Sam Lane. There’s nothing wrong with him being a doctor instead of a military lifer, but I couldn’t help wondering why they did it. It’s not like boxing scandals were all anyone could talk about in 1993 the way, say, the looming baseball strike was a thing, or the way Michael Jordan’s Bulls or the Dallas Cowboys were huge in that era. I suppose it’s easy to suggest the cybernetic implants are a metaphor for steroids, but why link it to a sport that was widely known to be hopelessly corrupt? Why not make Dr. Lane a sports doctor who was working on some king Bo Jackson/Deion Sanders style two sport phenom or something? Again, the easy answer is so they could have Superman box someone, but the fight isn’t particularly vivid or close. When characters are changed from their source material it’s usually for a reason, to close some kind of plothole or diversify a culturally outdated cast. It makes sense to have Alfred be a former medic because it explains why Bruce Wayne doesn’t live at the hospital or to make Starbuck a lady because our notions of who gets to serve in the military are changing. But the Sam Lane switch is baffling because he’s basically the same character and there’s just no reason he couldn’t have been connected to those government goons in episode two or whatever.
What fascinated me about the episode is the fact that it had no B plot. Or, if there was a B plot, it was the relationship between Lois and her dad, as opposed to her and Clark investigating the boxing gym where her dad often works? Either way, the result is an episode with more emotional weight that gives the complicated relationships at the center of the plot a little more time to breathe. It’s an important episode in the Lois/Clark/Lex triangle because while Lois and Clark start actively working together as partners, Lex also manages to clean up the boxing scheme in a manner that also makes it seem as if he’s saved Lois’s life and promises to give her suddenly controversial father a job, thereby strengthening her attachment to him as well. But the extra meat for the main characters means no Cat (last seen straddling Clark in the previous week’s installment) or Clark’s parents and a few throwaway lines for Jimmy. This is a show with a pretty substantial cast, and they don’t seem to know how to get everyone to work yet.
Dr. Sam Lane, recipient of the famous Torso Award
Ronnie: I didn’t notice the lack of B-plot until you mentioned it, but you’re right. There’s nothing in the way of “tangents” in “Requiem for a Superhero”, with the exception of a brief moment at the outset where Perry pressgangs Clark into joining his poker game, suggesting a path forward that is a little more focused with its storytelling. I’m uncertain whether that’s a step forward or not. I’ll explain: the one storyline does make sure the episode isn’t bogged down by “stupid bullshit” so to speak, like that guy trying to be Superman’s agent–something that occurred last episode that we didn’t even bother mentioning. Yet the “stupid bullshit” also shades in the world of the series, makes it feel more populated, gives it color. This is pretty much exclusively about Lois reconciling with her dad, with the subplot of Clark discovering he can rip shit up at sports. I guess it’s nice to have the diversity of having focused and unfocused episodes. I think something we have to take into account is how often Lois & Clark is homaging The Adventures of Superman starring George Reeves. After all, this is subtitled The New Adventures of Superman. More to your point about Golden Age Superman, I can see George Reeves breaking up a crooked boxing syndicate easily. Not to spoil our further endeavors too much, but I scoped on Wikipedia that one upcoming episode is an extensive homage/remake of an Adventures of Superman episode, so we’ll soon see the connection become explicit.
Odds & Ends
-No Seinfeld alums this week, though John LaMotta (the guy who gets killed to cover up the cyborg boxing ring) played Duke, Martin’s friend and bar owner on Frasier. Guess who played Duke’s daughter on Frasier? None other than Teri Hatcher. Also, Joe Sabatino (the boxer Tommy Garrison) was a henchman in Batman Forever and Batman & Robin. Dude went from “Harvey’s Thug” to a guy named “Frosty”.
– Not only does Lex monologue to a dog, he also pours two glasses of champagne and then places one of the glasses in front of it. Lex doesn’t just talk to dogs, he also apparently gets drunk with them.
– In one exterior scene there’s a movie marquee advertising Kracula VS Rodzilla. I would like to see this movie very much.
– It’s been a runner that Lex is the third richest man in the world. We finally learn who’s richer than him: Albert Chow of Hong Kong and Elena Pappas of Athens, Greece.
Ronnie: Next time we’re doing “I’ve Got A Crush On You” and “Smart Kids”. One of those promises an arson scheme and the other promises smart kids; I trust you to figure out which is which. “Smart Kids”’ aired on Halloween night, 1993, so consider it our contribution to the boogeymonth.